Obama and the LBJ DelusionPosted: February 3, 2014
John Aloysius Farrell writes: Lyndon Johnson recognized opportunity when he saw it. The body of John F. Kennedy had been tucked into an Arlington hillside for but a few days when Johnson summoned the leaders of Congress to the White House in late 1963. They were going to seize this moment of national unity, he told the assembled lawmakers, and move the vital legislation—on civil rights, taxes and other pressing issues—stalled in congressional cul de sacs.
To get the tax cut through the Senate, Johnson told the leaders, hewould have to pare federal spending. That meant chopping wasteful programs, like funding for antiquated Navy yards, from the Pentagon budget. They were relics from the world wars, LBJ said, barnacles in an era of ICBMs and nuclear warheads. At his side was Kenneth O’Donnell, Kennedy’s chief of staff.
“Where are you going to close them?” asked House Speaker John McCormack, a flinty Democrat from South Boston, knowing well that the yards were huge employers. Philadelphia, the Speaker was told. Brooklyn. And Boston. At which point McCormack drew on his cigar, turned in his chair, and blew a mighty cloud of smoke in Ken O’Donnell’s face.
“How did it go?’ Johnson wanted to know, after the meeting was done. Well, said O’Donnell, the Boston yard in Charlestown sat in the district of McCormack’s protégé—Rep. Thomas “Tip” O’Neill Jr. —who happened to be the deciding vote on the Rules Committee. “You’ll never get a piece of legislation on the floor of the House of Representatives as long as he’s there,” O’Donnell said.
Johnson brooded, but only for a time. His reputation, his legacy and his hopes for election in 1964 lay with passage of Kennedy’s program. He didn’t threaten. He didn’t sweet talk. He caved. The Navy yards stayed open.
“My inclination is to do what’s right,” Johnson explained to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. “I’d hate like hell, though, to be such a statesman that I didn’t get elected.” The tax cut, the civil rights bill, Johnson’s “war on poverty” and the rest of the Great Society cleared Rules on their way to law. Johnson, of course, won the election.
The Navy yards story is instructive, for it illustrates the limits that presidents face when dealing with that other formidable branch of government, the U. S. Congress. All of Johnson’s persuasive powers—the insistence and the wooing, the arm-twisting and bullying that typified the famous Johnson “treatment”—were useless in the face of an elementary exercise of political blackmail by Tip O’Neill, then a junior member of the House…
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